Monday, 27 March 2017

Fairy-tales and Cathedrals

 We were sitting inside Barcelona's insanely beautiful Basilica of the Sagrada Familia. They’ve been building Gaudi’s cathedral for over 100 years, and it's nearly finished. (A tip: queues for tickets can be long- so if you’re planning a visit, best book ahead online in the UK.) Approaching from the outside on foot, one’s first natural reaction is… wow. It’s big, it’s high, and it’s covered in ornamentation. The roof resembles a series of stalagmites, or the conning towers of sunken ships, colonised by sea-creatures. There are so many curves, so many sloping surfaces. It looks alive.

Entering through the East door, visitors stop, overwhelmed at the sheer spectacle of the interior, its high branching pillars resembling the trunks and canopy of some vast forest. Abstract stained glass windows turn natural sunlight into splashes of warm flowing colours.


After wandering around in a kind of ecstasy, we tranced-out in a taped-off area near the front, set by for prayer, meditation or just ‘being there’. (Anyone talking loudly or clicking cameras, quickly had a uniformed attendant tapping them on the shoulder.) At one point, a hidden organist even started playing a short piece from our wedding day (Bach’s ‘Where Sheep may Safely Graze’). Yes, it was that kind of day.

But sitting near Mrs PGD were an English couple, muttering.

'What a waste of money!' he was complaining, 'All for some stupid fairy tale!' His partner didn't reply. Perhaps she was embarrassed. Thousands of people were wandering around goggle-eyed at Antonin Gaudi's architectural miracle, but this poor sap just didn't get it. All he could see was the cost of everything- and none of the value.

We were facing the central altar. Above it hung suspended, a simple unadorned sculpture of the crucified Christ. For our cynical neighbour, perhaps that's what did it. For him, the narrative retold in the Gospels was just a fable designed to fool the gullible, the weak and the feeble-minded. But classic fairy tales like Cinderella or Jack the Giant-killer are thumping narratives of the undervalued turning tables on the rich and powerful, the supernatural breaking into the real world. Children love stories of dragons being defeated and monsters vanquished, because they instinctively know that dragons and monsters must be defeated. That’s why fairy-tales survive, even today- because Fairies aren’t all nice.

The Gospels aren’t really in that league. They're just full of uninspiring everyday human beings trying to make sense of this Jesus-phenomenon walking amongst them who is by turns, perplexing, baffling, rude, and constantly going against expectations. He challenges the prejudices of petty organised religion. He reaches out to the unloved. Some of the things he says don't quite make sense. The authors of these narratives (whose names, incidentally, adorn the pillars of the Basilica) depict themselves as being rather thick for not 'getting it', whatever ‘it’ is. Luke’s Gospel (for example) is a picaresque series of journeys and encounters, packed with awkward human details of meals, conversations on the road, and chance encounters going in unexpected directions. (Luke's account of a sea voyage and shipwreck in 'The Acts of the Apostles' is a masterpiece of Ancient Greek literature.)

As fairy stories go, it fails. The boy doesn’t get the girl. The pot of gold stays resolutely buried. This kind of narrative doesn't do ‘Happily ever after’. It's too disturbing and unfinished.

Perhaps our neighbour had simply filed the whole thing, mentally under ‘Didn’t happen because these things can’t happen’. I bet he hasn’t read Mark’s Gospel, the shortest and possibly the earliest-written of the four. It’s not pretty, it’s not enthralling- but it does begs lots of challenging questions about what it actually was, that these people witnessed at first-hand. If you haven’t read it, give it a go. An hour should do it. Was it just wishful thinking? Judge for yourself, but afterwards.

 I hope our neighbour was left with a few unsettling questions after his visit. When Mrs PGD told me about him, I felt rather sad. There he was sitting, surrounded by Gaudi’s testimony of the Light coming into the Darkness, but like the first disciples he just couldn't understand it. For his own sake, I hope one day, he does- and that you do as well.

But what's this got to do with the twisted art of Ridley Scott's 'Alien'? More next time....

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.